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by Joshua Wolf Shenk
Houghton Mifflin, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Dec 16th 2005

Lincoln's Melancholy

Joshua Wolf Shenk says that Lincoln's Melancholy is not a psychobiography because it lacks the hallmark of that genre, viz., starting with a psychological theory and looking at a person's life in detail to argue that it provides evidence for the theory.  Shenk is primarily interested in Lincoln, rather than in trying to prove any particular theory.  However, he does argue that Lincoln suffered from both at least two major depressive episodes and later in life from chronic depression.  Furthermore, Shenk sets out the case for what might be his most controversial claim, that Lincoln's melancholy not only affected his behavior, but also did so in a positive way, molding his character to make him the great President he became.  Shenk's book is scholarly, with 66 pages of notes and 23 of bibliography, as well as an afterward on the history of Lincoln biographies explaining how Lincoln's melancholy became such a neglected topic.  Yet it is also extremely readable and even gripping in places, and will appeal to those who normally have little interest in Presidential biographies.  The unabridged audiobook powerfully read by Richard Davidson takes 9 CDs, and includes an interview with Shenk that is also illuminating. 

Since the book's initial publication, some reviews have taken Shenk to task over his evidence for his main claims about Lincoln's depression, and those disputes are matters for Lincoln scholars. Shenk's case is certainly convincing on its face, setting out how Lincoln often referred to his own emotional pain and unhappiness, and also how those around him also observed him as an exceptionally subdued person on many occasions.  It is also very plausible that Shenk's experience battling his low moods could have ultimately given him strength to persevere in the face of trials, thus enabling him to go on even though various political defeats and bleak times during the Civil War.  There's no doubt that Lincoln was an ambitious man, but he ultimately stood on principle when it came to the issue of slavery.  There are even grounds to speculate that his own experience with suffering made him more sensitive to the suffering of slaves, although such a connection would be very hard to prove.

One of the best features of Lincoln's Melancholy is Shenk's ability not only to use the categories and ideas of modern psychiatry, but also to use Lincoln's life to examine their limits.  He cites the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual several times, but he also discusses a plethora of psychological theorists and memoir writers in his examination of how chronic depression can change the quality of a person's life and how it can be possible to keep on being productive while at the same time struggling with despair.  Shenk is at his best when he points out that merely seeing depression as a disease or a chemical imbalance leads us to a narrow understanding of emotions.  He also brings in questions of religious belief and philosophical outlook that are normally ignored in modern psychiatric accounts of depression.  This is an excellent biography that deserves a wide readership.

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.